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Audacious victor versus steadfast incumbent

Even as Ned Lamont redefined politics with an audacious, against-the-odds victory over Sen. Joe Lieberman in the Democratic primary in Connecticut Tuesday night, Lieberman himself has launched a bid that could reshape the landscape by running as an independent. By Tom Curry.

And so the grudge match continues.

Even as Ned Lamont redefined politics with an audacious, against-the-odds victory over Sen. Joe Lieberman in the Democratic primary in Connecticut Tuesday night, Lieberman himself has launched a bid that could reshape the landscape by running as an independent.

“We’ve just finished the first half and the Lamont team is ahead, but in the second half our team, Team Connecticut, is going to surge forward to victory,” Lieberman told a whooping cheering crowd in Hartford, calling it “a much closer race than all the pundits were predicting.” The final result was 52 percent for Lamont and 48 percent for Lieberman.

The three-term incumbent said he had a duty to his state, his party and his nation to run. “I can not and will not let that result stand,” he declared.

He appealed for Republican and independent votes: “We’ve never hesitated to work with members of the other party.”

There are a total of about 1.3 million active Republican and independent voters in Connecticut, twice as many as the number of Democratic voters. If Lieberman can get perhaps a third of the Democrats, he could just make the math work for him.

Let’s give credit — for political savvy and daring — where it is due. For a man with far less experience than Lieberman, Lamont has shown great shrewdness.

He not only accurately gauged last winter that voters felt Lieberman was complacent, but he was willing to spend some of his own fortune to jump start his campaign. 

“Look, you’ve got to have a little democracy every once in a while,” Lamont told me when I first interviewed him in his Greenwich office last March. “This guy hasn’t been challenged since 1988. Every once in a while the voters want you to come back and justify your positions…. there’s a real anxiety on the street that he’s deserted the state, deserted our party, and he doesn’t represent what we care about right now.”

Lamont’s 52 percent in Tuesday's primary proved that most Democratic voters agreed with him, even though party organization and residual respect for Lieberman helped him get 48 percent.

But the refrain one heard across the stage was that Lieberman had fallen out of touch with his constituents.

State Rep. Douglas McCrory, who represents a middle-class black voting district which Lamont narrowly won (345 to 310 for Lieberman), said his constituents had two reasons to oust Lieberman.

“The biggest one is the war. A lot of people feel the money we’re spending today in a war that wasn’t planned for and we’re told ‘there’s no money’ in the federal budget” for the needs of Hartford. “Yet automatically they find all this money to support a war. People are upset about that,” McCrory said. “People are also upset about the constituency support they are not getting from the incumbent. They just feel Joe Lieberman hasn’t been visible enough in their community.”

Handicapping the Lieberman run
So what are Lieberman’s chances of success in November?

In theory, not bad since Republican Alan Schlesinger is a negligible factor in the race and despite rumors Tuesday of Rep. Rob Simmons, a moderate Republican from New London, being persuaded to enter the race, it looks as if Schlesinger will be the GOP nominee.

One hope for Lieberman, voiced by some of his long-time allies Tuesday night as they saw he would be defeated, is that the longer the campaign goes on the more scrutiny Lamont’s statements will get, and, in time, he’ll make some rookie errors.

Balance against that hope the anger some Democrats still feel about the war — and the anger they may feel about him forcing them to make an agonizing choice between alienating the Lamont wing of the party or the Lieberman wing.

From New London to Stamford, every Democratic town council will need to take a stand and this friction may hurt local Democratic races. Prominent Democrats such as Rep. Rosa DeLauro will be forced to forsake their old friend, Lieberman.

If you wanted a test run of Lieberman’s effort to win a fourth term in the Senate, you could look at his ill-fated bid for the presidential nomination in the 2004 New Hampshire primary. All that has changed since then is that the Iraq war and Democratic frustration with it has dragged on another three years.

In a crowded 2004 field of contenders, Lieberman and his hawkish position on the war had an appeal to very few of those Democrats in N.H.: a bit more than eight percent of them wanted him as their nominee.

Of course the numbers weren’t nearly that bad here in his home state Tuesday. But the war remains a terrible burden for Lieberman.

On June 21, Lieberman declared on the Senate floor, “the consequences of an American retreat and defeat (in Iraq) would be terrible for the safety and security of the American people.” 

Most Democrats do not agree with that view.

And Democrats who called for withdrawal of troops didn’t like to hear that they were really in favor of “retreat and defeat.”

Tuesday was their chance to not only say, “You don’t represent us,” but to punish Lieberman for steering more by his own moral compass than by listening to his constituents.